Hey Mr Music: 70s Reggae Women - Articles - Soundblab

Hey Mr Music: 70s Reggae Women

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

Reggae music, for all its insurrectionary truth-telling and revolutionary fire, has never exactly got on board with the feminist cause, and this was even more true in the 70s, a golden age for reggae but a time when female voices and viewpoints were rarely expressed within the genre. When Althea & Donna reached number one in the UK charts in 1978 with 'Uptown Top Ranking', a song about a girl's right to have a good time, the very fact that two young women were fronting a reggae hit was a controversial topic.


Meanwhile, when reggae legend Bob Marley wanted to check out London's punk scene, he hooked up with Don Letts, then manager of The Slits. Marley was so enamoured by the scene and its embrace of reggae's rebel style and attitude that he wrote 'Punky Reggae Party', a song which name-checked, among other bands, The Slits - until, that is, Marley found out the band were all-female, at which point he swiftly removed their name from the lyrics.


Not that The Slits were unfamiliar to being let down by men in the music business. The recording of their cover of Marvin Gaye's 'Heard It Through the Grapevine', was almost scuppered when it turned out Island Record's original choice of producer, big-shot reggae artist Dennis Brown, had no idea what to do in the studio. Never ones to surrender in the face of adversity, The Slits went ahead with the recording, with the studio's tea lady at the helm. The result is one of the best cover versions ever, a girl-punk, funky-reggae stampede through a pop standard and one in the eye for sexist knobs everywhere.


Elsewhere, some reggae labels and producers were willing to give female singers a try, although many had an output far removed from the Rastafari-inspired fire of their male counterparts, specialising in love songs reminiscent of early-60s Motown, or cheesy covers of easy listening standards such as 'Feelings' and 'Que Sera Sera'. However, some singers bucked this trend to produce some remarkable music which, though it largely slipped under the radar at the time, has been reassessed and re-released in the years since.


Those paired with seminal producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry often faired particularly well. Unlike his peers, Perry has been known to actively promote female talent. Among those to benefit from his innovative production skills were Faye Bennett, whose potent, tough 'Back Weh' is refreshingly free of any saccharine teen-love sentiment. Perry also lent his talents to music by Candy McKenzie, who's 1977 anodyne cover of the Dusty Springfield/Baby Washington hit 'Breakfast in Bed' was backed by the weird, wild and wonderful 'Disco Fits', on which McKenzie unleashes a fearsome diva wail as she demands the DJ play her "a disco mix". Shockingly, until recently this fantastic track had never been released outside of Jamaica, something thankfully rectified by the 2010 Melody Life: Trojan Sisters compilation.


In the late-70s, with the female and disco-friendly lovers rock in ascendancy in London clubs and the charts, The Main Attractions released the deeply funky 'Jam Up, Jam Down', a slickly-produced number which showed how the genre was evolving. The 80s marked a new era for reggae, particularly in the UK, where acts such as Culture Club, The Police and UB40 brought the music to wider, and whiter, audiences. Many of the female trail-blazers of the 70s were forgotten, although we can now find their music on several compilations which are well worth hunting down.

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